Monday, April 15, 2024

Brunswick government begins process to revamp tree protection

Haynes Brigman addressing the Board of Commissioners. (Port City Daily/Copeland Jacobs)

BOLIVIA — The Brunswick County Board of Commissioners moved to hire an outside consultant for its Unified Development Ordinance revisions, with the goal to get authorization from the General Assembly to create a tree protection ordinance. 

READ MORE — More tree protection on the table in Oak Island

At a Monday night meeting, Deputy County Manager Haynes Brigman presented a review of resident input and potential future changes for tree protection countywide, as part of the tree standard overview and unified development ordinance update.

Surveys conducted over the last few years suggested county residents want more trees and less development. Brigman stated the ultimate goal was to produce clearer and stricter standards. 

Strengthening tree preservation will increase the amount of trees and slow the pace of development, though forestry and timbering will be excepted from any future ordinance. 

Developers currently are mandated to survey heritage trees — including flowering dogwoods, live oaks, longleaf pines, red bays, black tupelos and laurel oaks — but are not required to alter their plans to preserve them on the interior of the lot. County regulations also prohibit the removal of heritage trees from landscaped areas. 

Brigman explained most developers do not take advantage of incentives to save heritage trees. The UDO encourages the preservation of heritage trees and provides credit for their retention on a lot but there is nothing forcing developers to keep heritage trees on their properties. Commissioner Pat Sykes asked why the heritage tree survey even exists if developers can simply ignore the incentives. 

Brigman explained the county had two options for tree preservation. The first is to ask the General Assembly for authorization so Brunswick County can make its own tree ordinance. Municipal governments seeking to protect heritage or other trees on developing property must first receive the legislature’s approval because of private property rights: Tree protection ordinances by municipalities infringe on private property use, such as telling a developer what he can or can not cut back in an area he owns. 

The first exemption from the assembly to impose tree restrictions was allowed in Charlotte in 1975. Area communities, such as Kure Beach and Wilmington, have received exemptions as well, but not Brunswick County.

Controversy over the rights of municipalities and developers related to tree regulation has caused friction between state and local governments. Three years ago House Bill 496 was to prevent local governments from regulating the removal of trees on private property, which encompasses developing properties. The house passed it but it was never ratified, having been referred to committee and did not reach the state senate. 

The bill was received negatively by several municipalities, including Oak Island, Bald Head, and the Town of Kure Beach. Per an earlier Port City Daily article Brunswick County’s spokesperson said nothing about the bill at the time. 

House Bill 496 divided state and local Republicans, with a largely party-line vote in favor of the bill from the house GOP and a condemnatory resolution from Oak Island’s then-mostly Republican town council. The party at the state level mostly favored the rights of developers and property owners on the tree regulation question, and local party members favored the rights of towns and municipalities to regulate trees on developing property. 

If Brunswick County receives authorization from the General Assembly, the development of the new tree protection ordinance would need half-a-dozen public input meetings and a maximum of two years for completion — an optimistic projection, Brigman said. 

The second option is changing Article 6 of the UDO, which provides rules for developers to follow. Any changes to tree protection would be made here. 

Commissioners ultimately chose to pursue both options.

Going the UDO route, the county could increase the required amount of trees in every lot and add higher tree canopy and trees required in open space. Current county regulations insist 15% of a development site should be covered by canopy trees.

With authorization from the state to develop a tree ordinance, clear-cutting could be limited, heritage trees preserved against development, and tree canopies retained. 

Sykes pushed for immediate changes to Article 6. Paradoxically, earlier in the meeting she opposed a tree ordinance, yet made the motion to begin exploring it. 

“We need to look into the tree ordinance to see what we want to put in,” Sykes said. 

Her motion was unanimously accepted by the board. Afterward the county attorney Bryan Batton was tasked with preparing a draft to be reviewed for potential changes later. 

According to Brigman’s presentation, the UDO changes would include street tree requirements, the number of required trees on rights-of-way, higher open space and buffer requirements, and greater numbers of trees per lot. 

Commissioner J. Marty Cooke said the heritage tree designation was overused and would protect fast-growing non-long leaf pine trees, instead of deserving trees, such as water and live oaks. 

At the next board meeting, Brigman will return with a list of recommended species to place on a protected tree list. 

Brigman said two things were necessary for the UDO changes: planning staff did not have the capacity to update the UDO on their own and needed a consultant to guide them through the process.

He also suggested a committee involving residents and developers to review the UDO and inform how best to change it. Commissioner Frank Williams claimed credit for the commission idea in a statement he made after the meeting. Commissioner Mike Forte was against a committee as simply another layer of bureaucracy, but was in favor of a consultant. 

Forte’s motion to begin looking for a consultant also was unanimously accepted. Even though the process of tree regulation reform is beginning residents and government members already had more specific ideas 

A resident who spoke during the public comment section, Holly Long of Southport, already had a consultant candidate in mind.

“If you’re trying to bring about change, we have a wealth of knowledgeable people in our community,” Long said. “The consultants to a plan proposal to hire should be locals who understand our language and our people.” 

Long put forth local ecologist and conservation educator Andy Wood of Habitat Gardens, which helps reduce pollution in gardens. 

After the meeting, Williams made a number of suggestions about how to approach tree regulation to suit Brunswick County. 

“Brunswick County is a large, diverse County, and one size does not fit all. What works in St. James may not be suitable for Exum or Waccamaw,” Williams wrote in a press release sent to media. “What works in Leland may not be suitable for Varnamtown. We must find the right balance between sensible regulations to manage our growth.”

Williams suggested buffers for residential developments, making property developers cover the costs of intersection and stoplight improvements, and incentivizing workforce housing. 

County Manager Steve Stone said any future tree ordinance would have no effect on development already approved, and would increase development costs that would subsequently be passed onto the home buyer. He also brought to commissioners’ attention that trees located by streets might have adverse effects 

“Street trees are aesthetically pleasing. They really create potential utility problems, in all likelihood, they increase the cost and reduce the reliability of utility systems,” Stone said. 

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